The Changing Landscape of Alternative Wine Containers

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GrapevineIn last week’s column I focused on the carbon footprint of shipping wine. This week my focus is on reducing the carbon footprint further, by changing the wine container. Slowly, but inexorably, the wine industry is moving to alternatives.   

How might this foreshadow an environment impact? To ensuring the quality of wine? To the sensibilities of consumers?

Bottles have been the preferred containers for centuries and, until recently, never questioned. But now we’re at a crossroad of being environmentally conscious (which we all support) while possibly periling the quality of our wines (which we all resist).

We’ve been through this before. Remember Almaden Hearty Burgundy in the ’80s and ’90s that was sold in boxes? Remember the – ugh – wines in those boxes? As it turns out, those rudimentary containers may have been ahead of their time.

Now that the entire planet has become eco-conscious, the wine industry has been studying the ecological impact of their current packaging and, in the true spirit of American entrepreneurialism, a marketing angle to exploit.  

In the last few years, the wine industry has increasingly embraced a radical change that initially met with pessimism and snobbery: screw caps. Winemakers – and marketing companies – have been exploring new ways to change their packaging.

This outside-the-box thinking has resulted in an inside-the-box answer. Quality wines are slowly becoming “green.”

The capability of packaging quality wines at a reduced cost is having a major impact on traditional winemakers. I believe this will usher in a brave new world of improved packaging for quality wines (but not high-end wines). Consumers are becoming more demanding in their pursuit of ecologically sustainable purchases, including wine.

The weight of a case of wine in glass bottles is 40 pounds (or more) and is typically distributed 50-50 between the wine and the packaging, compared to paper and plastic containers, which are nearly half the weight with a distribution of 95-5 between the wine and the packaging. This results in a significant reduction in the raw materials utilized, the environmental impact and the transportation costs of wine.

So, what innovative packaging has hit the market over the last few years?
  1. Flat Bottles. Garçon Wines of Great Britain produces a slimmed-down version of a plastic wine bottle. No wider than a traditional screwcap (less volume footprint) and much lighter than a glass bottle, it addresses two carbon footprint issues (notwithstanding the ecological issues of plastic recyclability).
  2. Paper Bottles. The “Frugal bottle” is composed of 94 percent recycled paperboard around a food grade liner, similar to the bag inside boxed wine. According to the manufacturer it is up to five times lighter than a typical glass bottle and has a carbon footprint up to six times lower.
  3. Tetra Paks. This is the wine in a box, which comes in many shapes and sizes. The plastic “bag” in a cardboard, recyclable box preserves wine better than a bottle. It collapses around the wine, eliminating oxygen and thereby delaying oxidation and spoilage. Wines in opened boxes have a shelf life of 30 to 60 days, compared to 12 to 24 hours for bottles. Recently, a number of mass-market wine companies have embraced this technology and are producing much higher quality wines than in the past.
  4. Single-serving Containers. The wine in a box has typically been marketed in one- to three-liter sizes for convenience. For today’s typical on-the-go consumer, a number of wines are available in single-serving pouches, the equivalent of kids’ juice boxes (replete with straw if you so desire).

The single-serving container trend has evolved into several alternatives. When hiking or picnicking, glass bottles can be cumbersome and even dangerous. Why not pack your wine in an aluminum can? Or an esthetically more pleasing aluminum bottle shape?

The hurdle facing winemakers – and it’s huge – is the psychological image of an other-than-glass vessel containing an inferior drink for the masses. As more and more winemakers introduce quality wines in boxes, I think this image will change. How many of you turned up your noses when screw caps first came on the market?

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at nantonaccio@theexaminernews.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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